Community members filled the Forsyth County Board of Education conference room Tuesday night during its regular meeting as more than 20 speakers took the stand to either speak their concerns or show support for the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan.
The plan, which was originally brought to the district in 2013 before being officially added to its five-year strategic plan in 2017, is meant to recognize and help support Forsyth County Schools’ growing diversity within its student population.
Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden shared in a letter to the community published in the Forsyth County News on Saturday, May 15, that the plan is meant to “ensure that all FCS students and families had a sense of belonging, respect and acceptance in our schools and in our community.”
Bearden’s letter came in light of community members sharing concerns with him, the district board members and on social media that the DEI plan is based on Critical Race Theory, which is based on a scholarly body of work that suggests racism is embedded in all facets of American life, including schools.
District officials have stated that the DEI plan is not based on this theory, pointing to information on the plan and the coinciding training for staff members published to the district’s website.
These community concerns come in light of a national outcry against the teaching of Critical Race Theory, and community members and parents have also stood against similar diversity plans in nearby school districts. Cherokee County Schools is expecting a similar turnout at its board meeting on Thursday.
The plan to voice concerns at the local meeting began through a private Facebook group where several community members gathered online and agreed to wear red to Tuesday’s meeting to show opposition to the DEI plan, which has already begun being implemented in the school system.
Others in the community who support the plan felt they should also attend to voice their opinions. Katy Gate, a senior at South Forsyth High School, began asking her fellow students to come to the meeting, wearing purple to tell others that issues of diversity should be nonpartisan.
What those in opposition of the plan said
In a nearly 90-minute public comments session, many of the opponents of the plan spoke to the board first.
“We’re deeply concerned with what we’re seeing in our state and our county regarding CRT and DEI,” said Bobby Donnelly, the chairman of the Forsyth County Tea Party. “It’s very troubling. We’ve seen things in the paper like transgender homecoming queens and DEI and things like this. We’ve noticed that everybody on this board, if I’m not mistaken, is Republican, and it seems like our Republican values are not matching what we’re seeing in our school system.”
Several speakers, despite the district’s previous statements about the DEI plan, said that it is rooted in Marxism and paints all white students and families as oppressors.
Hunter Hill, chairman for the Republican Party of Forsyth County, shared this sentiment with the board members and superintendent, speaking independently.
“I would like to be totally clear about what Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training is,” Hill said. “This is a Marxist trojan horse disguised with sunshine, rainbows and a bow on top because I agree …. that inclusion, in being friends and including people that don’t look like us, is extraordinarily important. But the DEI program is a trojan horse that will bring in a slippery slope …. A slippery slope that will ultimately end in Critical Race Theory, white repentance and the McDonaldization of American students.”
Other opponents of the plan said the district should focus on regular student curriculum, teaching only math, science, English and other topics instead of turning toward diversity plans or social and emotional learning.
What supporters of the plan said
Gates, the first of three students and one of the first supporters of the plan to speak at the meeting, directly spoke against the argument.
“I’ve been educated in the Forsyth County School public school system for all 13 years of my education, and through it, I learned more than math, science, reading and history,” Gates said. “I learned how to speak up for myself. I learned how to communicate with a variety of people. I learned how to create change. I learned values of kindness, love thy neighbor.”
During her speech, she also referred to words that she heard from her third-grade teacher on the first day of school.
“I treat everyone in this room fairly,” she remembers her teacher saying. “But that doesn’t mean that I treat everyone the same. Because you see, all of you are so very unique that to treat you the same would be to treat you unfairly. Katy needs something different to succeed than Evan, and Evan needs something different to succeed than Andra. So I will not treat you the same, but I will give each of you the different resources you need to have the same chance to succeed.”
To her, she said these words represent what the DEI plan is to the school district and the students within it. Other students who spoke Tuesday echoed this sentiment, explaining the importance of recognizing the district’s diversity and providing resources for different students.
Damian Galvan, a junior at Alliance Academy for Innovation, referred to his podcast, Polititeen, which he started co-hosting with his friend Varoon Kodithala as a way to begin having more conversations surrounding both social and political issues in the community.
He said that the DEI plans also simply promotes the same action — having conversations with “people who look like me.”
“Varoon and I never had a teacher as a mentor who looked like us,” Galvan said. “I have countless friends who are part of the LGBTQIA community who don’t have counselors they can go to to talk about their experiences. This plan does not yell, ‘You are different.’ It yells, ‘You are no different. You are welcome within this county.’”
Democratic politician and Forsyth County resident Daniel Blackman also showed up to speak in support of the plan, referring to it as a nonpartisan issue. He spoke on Forsyth County’s history, a point that many supporters of the plan brought up during the meeting.
“None of us in this room are responsible for the sins of our fathers or the sins of our ancestors, but we are responsible that our children don’t repeat them …. There is no easy way to get to where we want to go,” he said.
He encouraged that, as issues of racism persist in schools, that the board continue to listen to audiences such as those who showed up to speak at the meeting.
“We like to say that there are imaginary things going on,” Blackman said. “But this time last year, I spoke to a young lady at Vickery Middle School who tried to commit suicide twice because of how she was treated because of some misguided youth. I don’t blame this school district. I don’t blame anyone in this room. What I will say is [we need to] address these issues and try to find a way to not politicize an issue but to speak about it peacefully and understand that there is a medium.”
District 24 state Rep. Sheri Gilligan also attended the meeting, but she did not speak to the board about the DEI plan.
The board members and superintendent listened to each of the 22 speakers. They did not take any action toward the DEI plan or speak on it during any point in the meeting.
Parents and community members have said through social media that they plan to attend other board meetings in the future to continue to voice their thoughts on the district’s DEI plan.
Those who could not attend Tuesday night can watch the full meeting online through the Forsyth County Schools YouTube channel. For more information on the DEI plan and its implementation, visit the district’s website at www.forsyth.k12.ga.us.